Jim Ellis can’t tell you exactly when he returned home one night deeply hurt over a decision by the University of Southern California to fire him from his job as dean of the Marshall School of Business. When it occurred over the past eight months since Ellis was told he would lose his job at the end of this academic year on June 30th doesn’t really matter, he says.
But the moment he reached his home in San Marino, Ellis went straight to his bedroom and began to pull open the drawers of his dresser in search of every garment with an imprinted USC logo on it. “I am pulling out every USC t-shirt, every pair of sweatpants and workout shorts I have, and I’m putting them in a cardboard box so that they could be taken to Goodwill the next morning,” he sadly recalls. “I wanted to get rid of it all. I was done.”
In that moment of frustration, Ellis wanted to put behind him 22 years of service to USC, first as a new faculty member in the business school’s marketing department in 1997 and for the past dozen years as the dean of the Marshall School itself. In between, he had served as vice provost for globalization at the university and the associate dean of Marshall’s undergraduate program. He had won several teaching awards. And he had traveled tens of thousands of miles as dean, raising more than half a billion dollars on behalf of the school.
NONE OF THE EQUITY & DIVERSITY COMPLAINTS IMPLICATE THE DEAN IN ANY WRONGDOING
But all of that was done, even though Ellis wasn’t entirely sure why. USC Interim President Wanda Austin cut short by three years his third five-year term as dean based on claims that he had mishandled sex and gender harassment and discrimination cases reported to the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity (OED) during a 10-year period. Just how many cases is unknown. At one point, he was told there were more than 170 files. At another, he was informed there were over 70. When Ellis was finally allowed to view the complaints himself, there were only 59 and some were just handwritten notes of a few lines. One of them wasn’t even about the Marshall School but had been misfiled and was a complaint about the university’s Keck School of Medicine.
None of the complaints directly implicate him in any wrongdoing. Most of them were never seen by Ellis. He didn’t even know they existed. Almost all of them were, in his words and in accordance wih university policy, “handled exclusively by OED, not me. I’m not part of OED, and OED did not coordinate with me. To the extent a complaint ever did come to my attention, we dealt with it appropriately and followed university policy along with the specific directives issued by the university’s administrators. We never ignored or buried a complaint.”
When his youngest son recently asked him if he would do anything differently, Ellis said absolutely not. “I really wouldn’t,” he says. “I don’t think I did anything wrong. I don’t think I would go back and change anything. I’m not a discriminatory, prejudiced person. That’s just not me. My job was to be a role model for these kids,” he says. “The only reason I went there in the first place was to teach. I was there for the kids. I didn’t go there to be an administrator. I went to class, and I loved it. And that is what I have always done. I’ve always been there for the kids. And I think I’ve done a pretty damn good job.”
SCHOOL ACHIEVED ITS HIGHEST RANKINGS EVER UNDER DEAN ELLIS
No one, including the people responsible for his firing, could credibly dispute the school’s accomplishments under his leadership. Ellis helped to globalize the school’s offerings, built a new undergraduate building, and achieved gender parity in last year’s incoming MBA class with 52% of the students female, a rare feat among business schools. Marshall also attained the highest percentage of underrepresented minorities of any major business school. Earlier this year, Marshall rose to its highest level ever in U.S. News annual MBA ranking, jumping three spots to rank 17th. In the past three years alone, in fact, Marshall has moved up 14 places from a rank of 31st in 2016.
A Bloomberg survey of graduating students last month ranked Marshall among the Top 5 B-schools in the world for providing inspiring and supportive instructors, teaching skills directly applicable to real-world business situations, inspiring students to pursue an ethical career. The school’s dramatically improved performance is the direct result of the increasing quality of its incoming students and their highly positive career outcomes. What’s more, the school’s newly launched online MBA has been ranked best in the U.S. by Poets&Quants.
If anything, Ellis confides, he feels betrayed. “As I reflect back, it’s so surreal that I stopped believing it happened.”
With the exception of an op-ed essay that appeared in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, Ellis has publicly declined all media interviews and has never given his side of the story. For the first time, Ellis agreed to sit down with Poets&Quants for a candid interview to provide his perspective on the events from start to finish. A spokesman for USC told Poets&Quants it has nothing to add to previous statements made by the university “because this is a personnel matter (read the full text of Ellis’ letter here).”
AN OCT. 3 DINNER AT THE JONATHAN CLUB SET OFF ALARM BELLS
The first inkling that something was wrong came in an unusual dinner invitation from USC Provost Michael Quick. He had never been invited to dinner by Quick, and yet here he was asking to meet him at the Jonathan Club on the night of Oct. 3. The university had already been plagued by a series of scandals that had cost President C.L. Max Nikias his job two months earlier. Those headline-producing embarrassments included the administration’s handling of a campus gynecologist accused of sexually abusing patients and the belated firing of med school dean Carmen A. Puliafito who was taking and dealing drugs while on campus and partying in hotels with people of “questionable reputation.”
It was over that meal at the private social club in downtown Los Angeles, recalls Ellis, that Quick vaguely told him about the OED complaints and that the new interim president, in her job all of just two months and without any prior academic administration experience, had come to the conclusion that there were a number of issues at the school that may cause her to want to make a change in dean.
“The only specific thing was that the issues were around sexual harassment and discrimination and that I or the business school had not properly reacted to those issues,” recalls Ellis. “It wasn’t real specific. I was pretty shocked. That was the first time I heard of anything. I was always under the impression that if you had an issue with an employee who worked for you, the issues should come up at review time or as soon as they happen. Here were issues that were being looked at from eight to nine years back.”